director Troy Nixey
Maybe it’s my own fault for thinking that the trailer for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark looked kind of good early on. Co-produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), among others), it seemed to keen in on one of his stronger themes: childhood fears and fantasy. But maybe it’s more of a testament that this was one that he chose not to direct.
Adapted from a made-for-television movie from the 1970’s (was there really another decade where they did such things in earnest?), del Toro was drawn to his own childhood experience of the film. It scared him. It stayed with him. I don’t know if I have or haven’t seen the original. It’s vague in my mind. But the key way in which he updated the story, by making it focus on a child rather than an adult, seems the best intuitive choice that he made with the new film.
The film stars Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce as a couple who are restoring an estate somewhere in New England, a grand building that had been the property of a great artist. Pearce’s daughter Sally from a previous relationship comes to stay with them. Sally is unhappy, on medication, and is aware that she’s being passed off by a mother who doesn’t really want her. So when Sally first discovers these strange, creepy voices coming through the vents, she is keen to make friends with them not to fear them. Big mistake.
The film is visually polished, with cinematography that is more sweeping and swooping than the sum of the rest of the film’s parts. The story is not well-thought out, the characters are not terribly plausible or believable, and for all its effort, it’s just really hard to care. When Sally sneaks in to unbolt the sealed basement tunnel where the creatures live, it’s hard to believe that she really thinks they’re going to be friendly. The hiss very quietly, almost subliminally, and I would think that even a lonely, depressed kid would be more wary than that.
Actually, this is another missed opportunity for the film. There is perhaps a weird subcategory of horror films in which the children are the ones who believe in the fantastic horror while the adults fail to believe. The kids are considered insane. Child’s Play (1988) has been a personal favorite of this perverse order. We do have a child on medication here, supposedly over-medicated by her absent mom, but somewhat depressed as well. Without delving directly into psychology, there is much the plumb in the way of the child fantasist, the psychological versus the real world monsters, the loneliness of isolation of the world not believing in you. But it’s all for naught here.
So, the script is bad, the direction is blah, the acting is not great either. It’s sort of unkind to criticize a child actor, but Bailee Madison who plays Sally is not particularly sympathetic or engaging. Actually, it’s kind of funny but I have for a long time said that Guy Pearce only seems to show up in good movies, whether it’s a starring role in a small film or a small role in a bigger film, the films that he’s in are usually surprisingly consistently good. I suppose the exception proves the rule in this case.
It’s not an atrociously bad film, it’s just a frustratingly bad film. The creatures are kind of cool, the story idea is kind of cool. There was room for this to be a decent film. But like I said, maybe del Toro knew it wasn’t such good material and skipped directing this one. Who knows?